#marchforscience: Stupidity isn't a Virtue

Stephen Rockwell • 22 April 2017

The March of Science was held today in over 600 cities and towns across the country and globe.  I saw protest signs and friends decrying the need to have such a march. Unfortunately, we live in times in which it is necessary to demonstrate, loudly and clearly, that facts are indeed facts and that truth is both real and reveals itself through scientific discovery.

This isn’t new. We are all familiar with the story of Galileo. His use of new technology, the telescope, clearly demonstrated that the Earth was not the center of the universe. The Middle Age power brokers, primarily the church, had a lot vested in the Earth being the center of the universe. God’s chosen people extended not just to ethno-religious boundaries, but indeed humankind special relationship with God was intertwined with us being the center of the universe. The power brokers imprisoned truth-seekers in order to maintain the order of the world they constructed and from which they benefited.  However, if they would have been open to the discovery it would have at least temporarily put God on a much larger creation stage.  As so often happens, being open though to these newly discovered truths, we experience the universe in a more awe-inspiring manner.  Galileo's universe was more magnificent than the simplistic Earth-centered universe prevalent since antiquity and perhaps since our species first started to conceive of itself under the stars.

Similar forces are at work today. Entrenched interests in our capitalist system are hanging onto their worldview that human activity is not affecting the planet in profound ways that we may not be able to undo and which will likely make the Earth a lot less hospitable to life, including human life. The short term monetary gains of a few in the continued pursuit of fossil fuels is driving the planet off, in a gas chugging car, off the proverbial cliff. They refute the clear science through flat out ignoring it or attempting to delegitimize. Various elements of the Trump administration have whitewashed climate change from their communications and removed from their decision making. The single biggest threat to life on the planet is swept under the rug of ignorance.

Such activities by big oil and their allies are supported by perhaps a more pernicious sentiment endemic to elements to our culture, an embrace of ignorance as a positive character trait rather than a quality to oppose. There are two strains to this ignorance, one religious and one proudly ignorant. The religious ignorance is held by fundamentalist Christians who force themselves into the intellectual box of a literal translation of the Bible. These fundamentalists refuse to accept even the most basic facts of science fighting against evolution (the basis of understanding biology) and the Big Bang (the basis of understanding the universe in astronomy and physics) and claim that the age of the Earth is 6,000-20,000 years old (eliminating any need for geology).

There are other proudly ignorant folks who are happy to not believe basic scientific facts that would somehow cloud their worldview. The Atlantic covered this phenomenon recently here (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/this-article-wont-c…) in which the research demonstrates that people may ignore facts that cause cognitive dissonance to a worldview. If you don’t care to understand how the world works and  are content to not know, this bias becomes exacerbated. In a social media world in which we can control what content we receive with greater precision, we can indeed bask in our own ignorance and be supported by memes, friends and content which affirm our ignorance.

The truth is that almost all of us have the basic intelligence to be consumers if not creators of the science. Science requires the humility to test your hypothesis in order to provide it wrong. What a different mindset from holding a belief, dismissing any facts that may conflict with that worldview and looking for any shred of evidence that may support that belief. The March for Science is an affirmation of those who choose to take the plunge in deepening their understanding of the world and more importantly of being open to that worldview changing. For example, Pluto was discovered through painstaking astronomy as a planet. Generations of students were taught that our solar system had nine planets. When we fine-tuned our instrumentation, we realized our beloved tiny Pluto wasn’t so unique at all. There are scores of dwarf planets in the Kepler belt, many yet to be discovered. There were even scientists who emotionally held onto Pluto as planet, but discovery led to new truths that science, and humans who practice science, incorporate new facts that lead to new truths.

The questions than that the March for Science demands of those Americans who have turned away from a pursuit of truth, facts, and the scientific method is do you have the moral courage to face inconvenient truths that the science tells us? Do you have an open mind that allows new facts to be incorporated and shift your understanding of the universe? Are you willing to let go of some interest you have in maintaining the status quo to walk into a more magnificent world in which the pursuit of knowledge creates awe-inspiring discoveries that often create as many questions as they answer?

The March on Science was intended to create such dissonance. Instead of turning away, my hope is that folks re-embrace the values that led to the great shifts our thinking: The Enlightenment and the Industrial and Technological Revolutions.

Stupidity isn’t a virtue. A mind open to discovery, facts, and truth is.